What The Hell Did Penguin Do?

So Penguin rolled out 2 weeks ago, I posted some early thoughts over on the Branded3 blog, and since then I have been trying to work out exactly what Penguin actually did, because being 100% honest, there are a lot of sites I expected to get hit that didn’t get touched!

What the hell did penguin do? By the way, if anyone genuinely knows please say so in the comments.

A few of things we did see were 1) a definitive boost for perceived authority domains, 2) some kind of adjustment to the freshness algorithm and 3) a drop in authority for sites that had used the disavow tool extensively.

None of this has been confirmed, but here are a few examples of the kind of thing we have been seeing:

Authority sites

In the legal sector we saw huge gains for high authority websites like advice guide and the law society. However, when I search ‘injury claims’ am I really looking to read a long piece of boring text? Or do I actually want to make a claim?

Injury claims serps

Let’s presume I want to make a claim, if so 3 of the top 5 results are fairly useless. Let’s hope Google’s return to search algorithm deals with this.


Now, you may have seen an increase in high authority newspapers ranking for what seem like irrelevant queries:

Buy a coat serps

When looking to buy a coat I always run straight to the daily mail and telegraph…

However, it’s not just news sites that seem to have had a boost, it’s also any pages that are displaying dates, check this supplement result out:

ds craze serp

The site in 5th has a date in the snippet, this actually relates to a review that has the date within a h tag. Close monitoring of product pages on this site seems to show some correlation between a new review being left, and a temporary boost in rankings. It also seems to be more prominent since the last penguin update.

Disavowed Links

We probably have more experience than any other agency using the disavow tool, and in preparation for Penguin we audited all client links and disavowed any that weren’t 100% natural. In most cases this meant we had very few issues after the update, in fact we saw some great results. However, there were one or two which left us puzzled.

I disavowed over 1200 domains to SEOwizz (dodgy article directories from 2008), all I have left is 300 – 400 domains still linking, all from great websites (including the great and powerful moz and even Google themselves). I disavowed them nearly 5 months ago with no impact on traffic or visibility.

SEOwizz searchmetrics

Then penguin hits, my site loses all visibility and traffic drops from 3000 – 1800 a week… thankfully I don’t rely on the site commercially.

….and this isn’t a one off, we have seen this trend on 4 – 5 different sites who all disavowed links anticipating penguin.

Cyrus published his thoughts on this over on SEOmoz (now moz 🙂 ) last week, he disavowed all his links as a test, nothing happened (the disavow tool doesn’t work right?), then penguin hit and it died!

cyrus searchmetrics

So as you can see, there are still a lot of question marks around the most recent update, please, if you have any insight leave it below or drop me a line. Also, if anyone has recovered when Penguin rolled out please share 🙂


is the CEO of Branded3 a Search Marketing Agency in the UK. Tim has over a decade of experience in Search and regularly speaks at key events and conferences.

33 thoughts on “What The Hell Did Penguin Do?

  1. I agree that previous use of the disavow appears to have started to become a factor but I have taken that as an indication that perhaps its being further integrated into the general operation…. penguin 2.0 feels more like an infrastructure update than a new filter

  2. Yeah, the last penguin update seemed more like a penalty, whereas this one feels more like devaluation. I think recovery from penguin is only achieved by replacing all the authority lost from your bad link profile.

  3. Tim, thanks for keeping us up to date on your findings.

    As far as the Disavow, I can verify everything you said. My traffic dropped precipitously when Penguin 2.0 was released, although not as much as I expected after disavowing my entire file of links from Google Webmaster. A few days ago I removed the Disavow file entirely, and am waiting to see what happens.

    Also saw something similar happen to a client site, where they Disavowed some obvious poison links, links Google should punish the site for, but rankings actually dropped after Penguin 2.0, no doubt related to this issue.

  4. Our social sites had a big bump in rankings… but a person’s YouTube video that has 1200+ spam links feeding into it, still ranks right behind ours. All our links are 100% organic and we had a substantial drop in both branded and non-branded keyword rankings…. which after two weeks bumped right back up… wth Google? Figure it out!

    THX for the article… glad I’m not the only one who is feeling this way

  5. I did two experiments.

    1. I was trying to rank an article with spun content (it just was an experiment). but, I experienced down in ranking. I generated only 100–500 links and then nothing.

    2. I started 9 domains 6 months ago. All with spun content. Before the last update all are good. But, after 2 weeks of update all d-indexed.

    When I see over all Google’s behavior it looks like Google Focused on two things.
    1. block spun content effect on ranking.
    2. Blind authority to some sites. As I am seeing on some sites even duplicate content have position on first page but, other websites with good quality links have no spot on first page 🙂

    Will share more once I complete my other experiments.

  6. Tim,

    Whatever Penguin does it seemed to lack the ability to
    update regularly
    change the threshold easily
    apply to specific verticals

    Suspect that this P will change this…so maybe we haven’t seen the end of it yet.



  7. More than a little underhanded of Google to release the disavow tool and promote it as a penalty recovery tool, only to use it as a reason to devalue sites and drop their rankings. For once, the conspiracy theorists were right!

  8. Agree with you Tim on replacing that authority. The 1200 article directory domains were probably passing very little authority/equity even before penguin, so disavowing had little impact.

    I just haven’t seen penguin as page level either. The loss of link equity/authority effects the whole domain. Seen lots of sites where all the keywords drop.

  9. Hi Tim,

    I have to agree. My take on Penguin now is that its a devaluation of bad links. Many people interpret this as a penalty because their rankings fell. I think their rankings fell because the dodgy links which had been propping up their rankings no longer contributed any value. What do you think?

    Lastly, I’ve seen some sites with very few links (e.g. a handful of linking root domains) shoot up. For me it seems clearer than ever that Google is paying attention to user metrics and behaviour, and on-page analysis, to determine quality and rank. Have you seen similar?

  10. I’m pretty sure the UK is a second thought when it comes to these updates, and maybe they do that on purpose to help the American economy and so we all moan, giving them free press, Conspiracy all the way.

  11. Tim, you say that Cyrus’ blog “died”. Do you mean in terms of visibility?

    Because from his post, he still ranks #4 for “best seo blog” and #4 for “find bad backlinks”. To me that is merely an “adjustment”. Any thoughts on that?

  12. Yep seeing similar trends Ian. In fact we ran a campaign recently focusing on increasing engagement through authority content which led to a client dominating an extremely competitive keyword set.

    We’ve also seen some evidence that tiered link building has been targeted, so if you had 10 good domains linking to you, but all their backlinks were toxic, then the value will stop passing to you.

  13. Thanks Cyrus. It’s really interesting and something we’re keeping a close eye on. The frustrating part for us is obvious link manipulation doesn’t seem to have been hit, or at least not as badly as I was expecting. The electronic cigarette market in the UK is a prime example.

  14. Disavow definitely works – we’ve been able to recover 5 big domains that had incredibly spammy links, just prior to Penguin 2.0 (rel 4) and they haven’t been harmed since . One however, suffered from apparent “accidental” negative SEO whereby a spirited partner company had SWL to the clients domain. The businesses had since changed hands and we couldn’t get the links off. As soon as the domain was disavowed, we got a revoke notice. Singe Penguin 2.0 this site has been flying back to Page 1.

    (off-topic slightly) – what was the point of penalising Interflora , only to have it re-ranking at #1 almost immediately after it removed/disavowed them? Is it just me or did anyone else think it was all an entirely large waste of time if not just a great PR success story for Messrs Cutts & Team – while a small bit of a kick in the groin to their smaller competitors?

  15. I think Google messed up a lot of things with Penguin 2.0 . The best one would be for the term SEO new york. I happened to check the keyword because Rand fishkin had commented about a site which was ranking for that keyword which had used blackhat links and distilled was on #1 position at that moment.

    After Penguin 2.0 , for the same keyword , distilled has disappeared , Google local listings has gone up in which there is a website which is not at all related to SEO and there is also a japanese restaurant listing! Oh and the site which had used spam links still there.

  16. The neg SEO potential of that would be enormous if targeted in a way to maximize co-citational damage.

  17. I have had a hard time figuring out the effects of this Penguin as well. It does seem more like a link devaluation rather than a penalty. I am wondering if people negatively impacted after using the disavow tool would have suffered less by leaving up the spammy links and letting Penguin devalue some of them. Perhaps this is wishful thinking. I am curious to see recovery stories – if this is just a link devaluation, rather than a penalty like Penguin 1, we should actually see some sites recover.

  18. I am also seeing a lot of “perceived” authority sites move up. In many cases, this brand preference is making Google misjudge user intent. For example, if someone is searching for a product to buy, finding the top spots all taken by manufacturer sites that do not actually sell the product on their sites, or informational sites is frustrating. Like your ‘injury claims’ example above, people interested in a service or product have no interest in useless informational sites that do not offer what they are looking for. How is this making search results better for searchers?

  19. I’ve also seen the same thing lately when looking for products. I was recently looking to buy furniture for my house and when searching for things I was getting buyers guides to buy a sofa and articles from news sites on buying furniture rather than actual stores to buy the furniture from.

    This looks to have reverted back since penguin 2.0 but for customer experience and usability it was a horrible set of serps.

  20. One of the changes I’ve noticed is a massive dilution of domain crowding. I had a client who was dominating SERPs with 4 of the top 5 positions for nearly 200 keyword permutations. For almost all of those keywords they now rank about half those spots (1-2 top 5 positions.)

  21. My Site Tanked after we got out of the unnatural links penalty. (3 weeks ago)

    So much for a recovery! I was better with a penalty. LOL

    And the serps in my niche are a total joke.

    No surprise that Google got this one wrong. It is what they are best at!

  22. Really Dengerous Update of Google, If You Have Quality content + quality backlinks then don’t worry other wise google will do it 🙂 😛
    I am also facing the same problem from the first update of this bull shit algorithm of google…

  23. Hi Tim,

    Then penguin hits, my site loses all visibility and traffic drops from 3000 – 1800 a week… thankfully I don’t rely on the site commercially.

    …. and this isn’t a one off, we have seen this trend on 4 – 5 different sites who all disavowed links anticipating penguin.

    In most cases this meant we had very few issues after the update, in fact we saw some great results.

  24. Its supposedly a slow roll out not just a big bump. Has to be link profiles. If you have bazillion links in a short period of time that smells of software made. Which is again what it was stated that it would do.

  25. I not quite sure if this perceived authority is the best judgment of a query’s relevance. I often find more interesting stuff in underground or new websites, but unfortunately it’s hard for a new blog to gain any authority in established segments.

  26. I am new in SEO, i am here for learning it. I read articles of Matt Cut, Rand Fishkin. After reading this post and all the comment i concluded everything in a sentence…

    “Google has messed it up.”

  27. agree.. if your site contains good and effective content and a quality back link then dont worry for any kind of update otherwise its matter to think better to make visible your website in the SERP.

  28. Google is becoming more human by the day and I think Hummingbird is here to whittle out random comment spam. Nothing like good quality link building to get that juice flowing.

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